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Alice Curtayne

I ALWAYS SYMPATHIZE WITH PEOPLE WHO RUSH UP to me asking, "What's a hagiologist and is that how it's pronounced?" The first time I heard myself so described at a public meeting, I was confused, wondering what strange avocation had been thrust on me. I had to find out from a dictionary that the word means a writer of saints' lives.

I did not grow up with the ambition to be a writer, still less a hagiologist. Whatever equipment is supposed to be necessary for such a career, I was sure I hadn't it. When I left the convent school in my native Tralee, I took a modest secretarial job. After a couple of years, I went to Milan, still in a secretarial job, now perhaps not quite so modest. I was twenty, harrowed by loneliness, with nowhere to go and nothing to do on the long summer evenings. They had told me in the office that my salary would be increased when I was competent in Italian, so I began to read books in the language in order to hasten the day. With a mercenary rather than a cultural motive, I began to explore library facilities. One evening, my eye ran along a reading-room shelf where were displayed six volumes of the letters of St. Catherine of Siena, labeled Epistolario. I opened one of the series at random and my attention was immediately captured by a letter from the saint to the reigning pope. With extraordinary familiarity she addressed him as Dear Little Babbo, and then told him to be a man and not a coward! From that moment I was committed; my feet were set on a path which I could not leave again even if I wanted to. The letters were fascinating: the forceful phrasing, the direct hitting, the genuineness of that devotion poured over and over again in a torrent of colorful apostrophe. I read through every page of the six volumes, copying into a notebook the passages that particularly appealed to me. For the first time in my life, I was studying for the sheer love of it. I passed from the Letters to the Lives. Among that huge mass of reading were great books that praised her, others that by their insufficiency belittled her, others that unconsciously misrepresented her, and books that were even calumnious. But nearly all the reading left me with an empty sense of dissatisfaction. Nothing that I read corresponded with my own inner perception of her singularity: I did not find in the books about her the radiance of that unchanging gaiety expressed in her letters, nor the strong comfort of her unending endurance. Then I began to read the history of the fourteenth century in Italy. I had solved the problem of my empty evenings. The same personage dominated my reading for several years. I filled many notebooks. But still it never occurred to me that I would ever make any use of those notes.

Then I was transferred to the Liverpool branch of the same firm in which I held a secretarial post. In that northern English city, I joined the Catholic Evidence Guild and there met Frank 3. Sheed, who was very active in the same work. When he married Maisie Ward, another Guild member, shortly afterwards (in 1926), they founded the publishing firm of Sheed & Ward. But they continued their work for the Catholic Evidence Guild and they often discussed their publishing problems over cups of coffee with Guild speakers after street-corner meetings. One of Sheed & Ward's first ventures was a series of saints' lives by Henri Ghéon, Rev. C. C. Martindale, S.J., and others. The Sheeds wanted lives that showed the saints as human beings with the grace of God working on their troublesome human nature. They did not want the old type of life, insipid and unreadable, in which truth was sacrificed to "edification;' depicting the saint as unreal and unattractive. In those cafeteria sessions, the Sheeds would talk with the eloquence for which they are famous and we others would listen. They had difficulty in finding writers and themes. One evening they were explaining to us that not all saints, for one reason or another, really lent themselves to the modern biographical mould. Suddenly the contents of those notebooks, unopened for years, rose up in my mind. "St. Catherine of Siena would," I eagerly interposed. I began to talk and found it very difficult to bring myself to a halt. "You should write about her," they told me.

Some time later I was living in Ireland again and had leisure enough to follow their counsel. Like St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena needs a new interpretation in every age. She has a sense of humour and--all unwittingly-I had been marked down. She and I settled down to a kind of wrestling match. Not a scholar myself, I nevertheless chewed through the hard rind of scholarship to arrive at more exact knowledge of her problems. I was not devout, yet I had to address myself to the study of mysticism. I was no writer. These are but indications of some of the many hurdles that had to be crossed at her compulsion. She is the theme of an enormous literature in all languages, a sort of tower in which my book is like only one little brick. Yet to have placed that little brick in position gave a new meaning to life.

I remember with what trepidation I waited for the reviews. When the kindly critic in the London Observer hailed my book as "a masterpiece of literary art and historical criticism," I found that I was actually launched as a writer. I cannot say that I enjoyed the resultant publicity. To me it was an uncomfortable experience, loosing upon me as it did an avalanche of admirable people, chiefly nuns and priests, or laity acting upon their behalf, who wrote, or called, or seized me in the street or at functions, in order to persuade me against my own judgment to write the life of some personage in religion, of whom--they invariably added--no adequate life had ever been written.

I found myself in a world of religious orders all owing a long-overdue debt to their founders in the shape of a life. I discovered for the first time how many nuns and monks take a name in religion simply because they like the sound of it. Then, in their more mature years, they want to become more closely acquainted with the personage whose name they bear-and they marked me down to supply the need.

I had to live by my pen and soon found editors joining forces with my well-meaning persecutors. A literary career seemed assured so long as I obeyed the stipulation, "Something on the saints." I mean no impiety when I say that the saints were around my neck like a millstone. There seemed to be no escape. How often have I not seen that pitying smile of disbelief spread over the editorial visage when I suggested myself for some other theme and I would hear the murmur, "Saints are your line, you know, better stick to one's genre." This obsession that the writer succeeds only by rigid specialization is evidence of the artistic poverty of our time. Separation of the arts is a symbol of weakness and decay. Nowadays a poet is hardly expected to venture on prose. But that a writer should be labeled with a theme and expected never to deviate from it is surely the last stage of artistic poverty before complete bankruptcy.

I held out against the tide, however, and my second book was A Recall to Dante (Macmillan, 1932), whom I had also studied during my nearly four years residence in Italy. My book is an easy approach, a sort of "Dante without tears." Father Calvert Alexander, S.J., in his book The Catholic Literary Revival (Bruce, 1935) was kind enough to describe it as "one of the few really helpful books on the Florentine we have had by Englishspeaking Catholics." Afterwards I tried "straight biography with a Life of Patrick Sarsfield before returning again to hagiology with lives of St. Brigid of Ireland and St. Anthony of Padua. Then I tried a novel with House of Cards, and essays in the volume Borne on the Wind.

It was at about this stage of my writing career (1935) that I married a farmer, Stephen Rynne. On hearing the news, the Most Rev. Paschal Robinson, O.F.M., then Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland, said, "What a pity! That's the end of the writing." On the other hand, Stephen's farmer friends said, "Remember what I'm telling you: that finishes the farming." But they were all wrong. Stephen became a writer and I became a farmer. Since then we both write and we both farm. Stephen Rynne has become a well-known journalist and Radio Eireann broadcaster and is the author of three books: Green Fields, All Ireland, and The Vision of Father Hayes. We have two sons and two daughters. We have remained always in the original home in which we began married life: a Georgian mansion in north Kildare which was once a bad landlord's stronghold, where we live in the midst of great, trees and quiet fields.

When the children were small, I concentrated again on purely Irish themes: Lough Derg, which gives the history of one of the oldest traditional Irish pilgrimages; and The Trial of Oliver Plunkett, mainly a legal appraisement dealing with a seventeenth century Irish martyr.

As a writer, I found that the training as a speaker I had received in the Liverpool Catholic Evidence Guild stood me in good stead. I remember speaking in one of the principal theatres of Dublin a couple of years after the appearance of my first book and once again finding myself committed to a road I had never really intended to travel. This road led me in the nineteenfifties on three extensive lecture tours of the United States, two of them transAmerican.

Like so many other writers, I was induced to commit myself to the phantasmagoria of rocking in planes, swaying in diesel trains, or speeding over highways in highpowered automobiles to declaim my views on literature, on Ireland, or even on world affairs. There were months when I would hear in my sleep the introductory formula "Our Speaker Tonight," or I would quail again before the admonitions of the lecture agent when I had missed that train, or plane. I would stay awake over the problem why programme chairwomen are always so nervous and Madam Presidents so formidable. A programme chairwoman in Boston once pounced on me in the lobby of a convent retreat house saying "I am Alice Curtayne . . . ." Once, when nearing the end of my talk, I used the age-honoured formula "If I am not exceeding my time... ", expecting the usual smiles of reassurance. But instead, Madam President icily interjected, "Remember that every woman here has to get home in time to prepare her husband's dinner."

On a lecture tour, the ego gets a battering that should show good results in Christian formation. The first letters of invitation are couched in terms of ingratiating deference, and the advance publicity boosts the speaker to the very zenith of competence and charm. The subject of the eulogies is naturally elated, even if she has difficulty in recognizing herself. But there is an obverse side of the medal: the same people prepared to listen with such rapture are ready to forget with equally amazing rapidity. I remember the principal speaker at a banquet of a certain International Women's Congress. As I waited in the anteroom for the ceremonial procession to the principal table, I was surrounded with worried officials all intent on whittling down my speaking time. The contract with the agent had said fifty minutes, but they urged, "make it forty; no, better thirty-five, otherwise there wouldn't be time for . . . ." They had thrust into my hand a sheaf of press clippings in which I was glowingly described, but now it seemed that brevity was the greatest favour I could confer on all concerned. I had traveled five hundred miles to the venue and as we finally sat at the table, I was told, "About half an hour, not more." I got the impression that if I made it twenty minutes, I would be really helpful. As I speeded away from that city the following morning, I knew how good it was for my ego to realize that probably to the thousands who attended that banquet, I had already ceased to exist.

But writers will continue to flock to the United States as to the Mecca of opportunity and for an unrivaled stimulus to their efforts. Nowhere else in the world is the writer enfolded in quite the same genial, tolerant, and immensely kind encouragement, a mental environment that is remembered and honoured in the heart forever. It was in America I was persuaded in a certain college library to turn my attention to books for juveniles, and as a result I wrote Twenty Tales of Irish Saints and More Tales of Irish Saints.

The most thrilling assignment in my life reached me in 1958 when I was asked to give a course on Irish history and literature under the Medora A. Feehan lectureship, sponsored by Bishop John J. Wright, then Ordinary of the Worcester diocese, but since promoted to the diocese of Pittsburgh. I gave this course in the spring of 1959 at the Anna Maria College, Paxton, Massachusetts, where an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters was conferred on me. During the same period, I repeated the course at the Cardinal Cushing College, Boston. Many of the students in both colleges were of IrishAmerican descent and our work together gave me an insight into the mind of the Irish in America. My latest book, The Irish Story (Kenedy, 1960), was inspired by and is the fruit of that valuable experience.

Originally published in The Book of Catholic Authors, Walter Romig, Sixth Series, 1960.


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